Summary: In the late 1980s, the idiosyncratic Chester Brown (author of the much-lauded Paying for It and Louis Riel) began writing the cult classic comic book series Yummy Fur. Within its pages, he serialized the groundbreaking Ed the Happy Clown, revealing a macabre universe of parallel dimensions. Thanks to its wholly original yet disturbing story lines, Ed set the stage for Brown to become a world-renowned cartoonist.
Ed the Happy Clown is a hallucinatory tale that functions simultaneously as a dark roller-coaster ride of criminal activity and a scathing condemnation of religious and political charlatanism. As the world around him devolves into madness, the eponymous Ed escapes variously from a jealous boyfriend, sewer monsters, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a janitor with a Jesus complex. Brown leaves us wondering, with every twist of the plot, just how Ed will get out of this scrape.
The intimate, tangled world of Ed the Happy Clown is definitively presented here, repackaged with a new foreword by the author and an extensive notes section, and is, like every Brown book, astonishingly perceptive about the zeitgeist of its time.
Ed the Happy Clown, by Chester Brown 7.5
‘Ed the Happy Clown’ is a collection of strips that Chester Brown released in various publications, first in his own ‘Yummy Fur’ comics, starting in 1983, and then in Vortex Comics until 1989. It has been reprinted many times since and Brown even created a new ending for the set in 1992. the latter is the version used in this 2012 edition.
‘Ed the Happy Clown ‘ is a sad and twisted story that follows the misadventures of Ed, all the while concurrently telling various others tales, including that of a middle-aged Chester Brown (who suddenly realizes that his right hand is missing), some underground pygmies, an alternate Earth and shorts called “Adventures in Science”.
It’s a highly-respected and influential alternative comic series, and it is considered a high point of the genre during the eighties. It has gone on to win a few awards and there has even been talk of making it as a motion picture (sadly, Bruce McDonald, who has had the rights to it since 1991, has so far been unable to get the project financed).
Unfortunately, ‘Ed the Happy Clown’ doesn’t always make sense; Brown never plotted his story in advance, inventing it as he went along. That means that even he was unhappy with some of the result – case-in-point the entirely new ending for the 1992 edition (he describes the original one in his extensive notes at the end. Wow. What a departure!).
Since it was frayed at all ends at about the halfway mark, Brown tried his best to make sense of the weirdness (more specifically, that Ed’s glans had become Ronald Reagan’s head and that some guy was an endless poop machine!), by explaining that there were two alternate Earths – our reality and one where everything is significantly larger.
It finally comes together then. Loosely. But it’s still weird. Very, very weird.
It’s also perhaps too grotesque for my taste at times. For starters, there’s Chester’s violent murder of his lover while making love. That was !@#$ sick. Plus which Ed gets brutalized at every turn, which is tragic, not funny. Then there’s the endless stream of scatological humour, whose aroma was hard to ignore. I was put off a fair bit.
Brown himself was disturbed by what came out, including some of the misogynistic and racist stuff that he would normally find unpalatable. He explains in his notes that he decided not to censor himself, even if he found some of it tasteless. He also comments on his ignorance in many areas, something that years of maturity have since overcome.
One thing I really liked in ‘Ed’ was the way that Brown would sometimes go back and review previous developments before branching out onto another storyline, to ensure that the reader knew where this new story stemmed from. It wasn’t so much a rehash as showing a new perspective and taking it from there. I was well thought out.
But, in the end, I think I like Brown’s self-reflections in the tail end notes more so than the comic itself. For one, I would have preferred to read the unrevised version (i.e. the non-George Lucas edition), as it was originally published; reading it, I continuously had the sense that I was missing out on something. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
Secondly, I love to see how Brown deconstructs things, including his own logic. So reading his explanatory notes not only help shed light on the strip itself, but on his own process. I don’t always agree with him, but I can relate with his desire to explain everything away, spending probably more time revising than actually creating.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the key problem with Brown’s work is that he needs a blueprint to follow. His biographical work is clear evidence of this, in that the story is already all laid out – he just needs to shape it into his own. If he did the same thing with his fiction, developing the story through-and-through first, he would likely create a masterwork.
I’m not sure that he’s achieved that yet.
All told, when I once said that Chester Brown seemed too rooted in autobiographical stuff, and that his creative stuff wasn’t nearly as developed, I sure put my foot in my mouth: he went very much into the deep end with ‘Ed the Happy Clown’. Oh, sure, it doesn’t always make sense, but it’s relatively entertaining – if you’re a mature reader.
Because, despite its happy-go-lucky title, ‘Ed the Happy Clown’ is absolutely not for kids. Or the faint-of-heart.